- Standard Bank National Arts Festival
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The Standard Bank National Arts Festival takes place during the first two weeks of July each year in Grahamstown and offers an annual showcase of amateur, professional, regional, and international theatre as well as dance, crafts, exhibitions, music, films, and lectures by scholars and artists from all parts of South Africa. During its twenty-three years of existence, the Festival has served as an aperture through which to view the current trends and newest plays from around the nation, both in the main program and on the more experimental and impromptu Fringe. Responding to criticism about last year’s selections, the 1997 festival as a whole offered fewer imported productions and presented a better balance between the tried and trusted and newer, more experimental work.
As expected in a country in the midst of enormous social change, much of the theatre at this year’s National Arts Festival in South Africa reflected the progress and anxieties surrounding these changes. While the country at large was engaged daily in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings, which move from city to city in an attempt to probe South Africa’s ugly past and heal its many deep wounds, festivalgoers in Grahamstown also encountered the reconciliation theme in many of the plays offered on this year’s program.
A central participant in the discussion of reconciliation at the festival was Chilean playwright and activist, Ariel Dorfman, who came to South Africa to study the TRC, and who spoke at a viewing of Roman Polanski’s film adaptation of Dorfman’s play Death and the Maiden. The playwright’s assessment of the South African Commission was that it did more than previous commissions in emphasizing the reconciliatory over the punitive, but he cautioned South Africans that wounds cannot be healed without repentance. For victims, Dorfman said, forgiveness is not an abstract notion, but one that requires particulars. The horrors of the past cannot simply be unearthed and then swept under the carpet; true reconciliation requires admission of guilt and remorse, not just confession on the part of the perpetrators.
Many plays at this year’s festival explored the meaning(s) of reconciliation for South Africans today. Ubu and the Truth Commission tackled the TRC head-on. This collaboration between the director and designer William Kentridge (of Faustus in Africa fame), scriptwriter Jane Taylor, and the Handspring Puppet Company used Jarry’s Ubu as its central mythic figure, a man without a conscience whose actions destroy those around him. Incorporating live actors, projected animation, and Bunraku puppets, this sensory extravaganza used the TRC as its context and central theme. The egomaniacal, fat-bellied Ubu (played by Dawid Minaar) represents the prototypical apartheid official who stands accused of unspeakable horrors. More-human-than-human puppets play witnesses on the TRC stand, the victims of Ubu’s deeds. While the piece lost some of its overall power due to audio-visual overkill, it contained moments of pure theatrical poetry. The puppet-witnesses were utterly stunning. In one scene, a grieving old man [End Page 105] (played by a puppet) recounts in Xhosa how his son was brutally murdered and dismembered. As the puppet tells its agonizing story, a human actor translates his words through a microphone (as is customary at the TRC hearings). The staid and monotone translations of the human actor failed to capture the intensity of the puppet’s story and the emotion-laden words emerging from its lips. The tension created between the humanized object, the puppet, and the dehumanized translation by an actor proved genuinely chilling. Ubu’s three henchmen cum cohorts were portrayed as a three-headed Cerebus dog puppet, each head with a life and personality of its own. Ultimately given separate sentences by the Commission at the end of the...